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Inevitability of marriage for gays stirs exultation; Legislature seen as ready to reject discrimination

Words such as "jubilation" and "relief" just don't cut it for Kitty Lambert.

No, if state lawmakers do what Lambert expects and vote today to legalize same-sex marriage, it would be a moment so monumental, so important, so life-changing, that it may warrant a whole new word.

"Woooyah!" Lambert screamed in response.

Lambert, president of OUTspoken for Equality, a local gay rights group, thinks the State Legislature is finally ready, after years of contentious and often ugly debate, to allow gays to marry.

She also thinks that the legislation will pass more easily than expected and that first-term State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, will not have to be the decisive vote.

"Where do our legislators want to lie in history?" Lambert asked Sunday during a forum on same-sex marriage. "There's not a legislator out there who wants to fall into the column favoring discrimination."

Grisanti remained publicly uncommitted Sunday despite indications that he might be willing to cast the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage.

Lobbied by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a staunch supporter of the bill, Grisanti has nevertheless made it clear that there are unresolved issues that might prevent him from voting for the legislation.

"I'm going to wait and see what changes have been made in the bill," he told The Buffalo News on Sunday.

Julie MacPherson and Valerie Cary hope Grisanti sides with them.

The local couple, who are expecting their first baby in October, got married in Toronto last month and hope to repeat their vows here in Buffalo -- soon.

"We went to Toronto and got married," MacPherson said, "but why couldn't we do it here?"

MacPherson and Cary joined Lambert and six others at the downtown offices of the New York Civil Liberties Union to publicly urge state lawmakers to approve a marriage-equality bill.

To a person, they singled out Grisanti for praise, suggesting that his support for gay marriage would be both righteous and courageous.

"Mark Grisanti has the ability to go down in history as a folk hero," said Thomas Gleed of Buffalo. "He has a remarkable opportunity."

Terry Purdue, a lawyer who is African-American, took it a step further, suggesting that Grisanti has the ability to knock down the same legal roadblocks -- discrimination and segregation -- that once stood in the way of blacks. "Unjust laws cannot stand," Purdue said. "And the fact that my senator could be a swing vote [in removing those laws] excites me."

Grisanti knows the risks confronting him, but, if he didn't, national groups opposed to gay marriage stood ready to remind him Sunday.

The National Organization of Marriage, or NOM, announced that it would spend $1 million to defeat any Republican legislator in New York who voted for same-sex marriage.

The group pointed to recent victories in Maryland and Rhode Island, where the approval of legislation to allow gay marriage had been viewed as inevitable. "They were wrong," NOM President Brian Brown said in a news release. "Once our message got out and legislators heard from their constituents, same-sex marriage was stopped dead in its tracks. We expect the same to happen in New York."

Mark Flanders of South Wales is hoping that Brown is all bluster. For him, today's vote is the last step in making good on his proposal to longtime partner Peter Bisuito. If the bill passes, Flanders and Bisuito plan to celebrate by getting married as soon as the new law would allow.

"I proposed 6 1/2 years ago," Flanders said. "We've been waiting for this quite awhile."

"If it happens, fantastic," Bisuito said. "But if it doesn't, I'm 100 percent confident it will happen some day. We are the winning team."

Like Purdue, Bisuito is looking to Grisanti for leadership on what he knows is a volatile political issue.

"I just hope our senators do what's right for New York State, not what's best for themselves," he said.

After his meeting with Grisanti on Friday, Cuomo expressed confidence that New York will become the sixth state to allow gays to marry. His prediction came as legislative negotiators worked on changes to the bill to ease concerns of Senate Republicans.

Chief among those concerns is how the bill might affect religious organizations, including church-run adoption agencies. Those changes are not expected to dramatically alter the bill that the Assembly approved last week.

While advocates of gay marriage are increasingly confident, they are still a vote shy of what's needed for passage in the Senate.

"The question is: What side of history will you be on?" Lambert said. "This is a legacy that will protect generations of people. A 'yes' vote is absolutely necessary."

Lambert acknowledged that Senate Republicans could delay a vote but suggested that such a tactic would only postpone the inevitable.

She noted that public support for same-sex marriage has increased as more and more people have discovered that they have loved ones who are gay. "It's their friends, it's their family, it's their co-workers," Lambert said. "Everyone is connected to this issue."

Lambert told the story of her group, OUTspoken for Equality, marching in a St. Patrick's Day Parade several years ago and how most of the group's members fretted over the reaction they might encounter from the crowd.

Wearing T-shirts that said, "Irish and gay: How lucky can you get," they marched through the Old First Ward and were greeted by cheers and applause, not jeers.

Even more telling perhaps was the Irish woman in her late 80s or early 90s who walked up to Lambert as she and the others marched.

"My son is gay," she told Lambert. "Thank you for doing this."

Lambert is hoping the biggest thanks comes today in Albany.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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